“Power corrupts” is an idea as old as the Roman Empire, but seems to be very much in the forefront of our national narrative today. Considering the amount of public vitriol surrounding the nation’s income disparity and well-documented wealth gap in the midst of an economic slowdown, this idea has been playing out on the news and in the blogosphere for months. It’s the idea that the super-wealthy in this country have somehow exploited and cheated their way to the top, and that they continue to take advantage of their position to the detriment of the “middle class”. As researchers at the University of California at Berkley found, this is not just a social stereotype. Social class does correlate to a higher tendency for unethical behavior.
As reported on Wired.com, Paul Piff, one of the Berkeley researchers, explains the phenomenon this way:
Occupying privileged positions in society has this natural psychological effect of insulating you from others. You’re less likely to perceive the impact your behavior has on others. As a result, at least in this paper, you’re more likely to break the rules.
This is timely stuff, not only considering the social climate in the U.S. right now, but also considering the ideological divide between Democrats and Republicans in one of the nastier Presidential election years in recent memory. Does being wealthy truly establish one as being simply smart and hard working? Is financial and social success a virtue? Or should we redistribute wealth as a way of controlling the economically powerful elite? Is “greed good”, Gordon Gecko famously decreed in the first Wall Street movie, or is the accumulation of wealth the “evil of man”?
The Berkeley researchers conducted a number of experiments to answer these questions, starting with monitoring a four-way intersection. Using a reliable indicator of socio-economic status (people’s make and model of automobile), they tabulated the number of times people of various social classes cut off other vehicles or pedestrians. The higher the socio-economic class, the ruder the behavior of the driver. They then surveyed 105 Berkeley students according to their Socio-economic status, asking them a number of ethical questions. Again, the results showed higher degrees of unethical behavior from students of higher socio-economic class.
One study in particular seemed to clearly illustrate the lax ethics within the higher social strata. Hiring 108 individuals from Amazon’s Mechanical Turn labor service of various socio-economic statuses, the researchers asked each person to imagine they were the manager of a company. They were given a hypothetical applicant who wanted greater job security and was willing to take lower pay. What the applicant did not know, which was the focus of the experiment, was that the job was only a 6-month contract and the “pretend” manager would be given a bonus for negotiating a low salary. The higher the real socio-economic status of the manager, the more likely they were to lie to the applicant and negotiate an unreasonably low salary.
The old attitudes about social class and ethical behavior, it seems, are backed up by empirical data. Power does truly corrupt, and although it’s been easy to dismiss the guy in the Porsche 911 that just cut you off as one “bad apple”, data seems to support the idea that you’re much likely to see that happen from a guy in a Porsche than a guy in a Kia. The insulating effects of wealth and social status seem to remove people from that unwritten social contract that dictates ethical behavior. Instead, people with wealth and status are more likely to act with impunity and self-interest, as they’re not as likely to have to answer for it.